Erdoğan lacks focus on regional developments

Erdoğan lacks focus on regional developments

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s dismissal of President Abdullah Gül’s congratulatory message to Egypt’s new President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – even if he did not mention Gül by name - as “meaningless” may be a criticism of Gül. It could also mean that Gül and Erdoğan are playing the good policeman-bad policeman game here.

The question will remain vague, since Gül is unlikely to respond to Erdoğan. He has chosen not to endanger Erdoğan’s political future and is preparing for all intents and purposes to withdraw from the scene, especially after he announced that he has no political plans for the future.

The chances, therefore, are that Erdoğan will announce his candidacy and become president in August. Erdoğan’s remark about el-Sisi has meaning in this context, telling us more about himself than Egypt’s new strongman.

To start with, it signals that he plans no change in tack as far as Egypt is concerned even if he is elected president. Erdoğan is clearly winking at his Islamist supporters who feel an affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere.

That, however, has significance beyond Egypt. The coup in Egypt that toppled Erdoğan’s elected friend, President Mohamed Morsi, had support from Saudi Arabia and other regional Sunni powers who see the Brotherhood as a threat.

El-Sisi is also supported by Iran. This means that by taking on el-Sisi, Erdoğan is also taking on the key Islamic administrations in the region, a fact that is unlikely to endear him to regimes that already look at Turkey with suspicion today.

Erdoğan is also at odds with Washington on el-Sisi. President Barack Obama, like Gül, also congratulated the new Egyptian president, despite the blatantly undemocratic presidential elections in Egypt, and he signaled that the U.S. would work with him.

Talking to EU ambassadors in Ankara on Tuesday, Erdoğan also made his sentiments about Europe known once again when he blasted European governments for not being able to call the coup in Egypt by its name.

All of this means that Erdoğan wants to remain a champion of democracy - which can also be read as a sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, which would be the likely winner in free elections across the Middle East.

That may look good politically for Erdoğan in the eyes of his supporters in Turkey and the Middle East. However, it will limit Turkey’s ability to influence the very real situations that are emerging, not just in the Middle East but also in North Africa.

It is not clear, for example, how Ankara plans to cope with the new threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) without cooperation with regional powers. Most of these powers are against the Muslim Brotherhood and some have even designated it as a terrorist organization. The question is not whether this designation is justified or not.

The question is whether Ankara has faced up to the reality that its support of the Brotherhood is seen even by fundamentalist regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran as support for radical Sunni groups.

Talking to regional Justice and  Development Party (AKP) officials on Wednesday, Erdoğan listed all the countries that he was in contact with over the ISIS crisis, clearly trying to signal in this way that Ankara is engaged in intense diplomacy over ISIS and other regional issues.

Turkish citizens, including the Consul General in Mosul, however, remain hostage to ISIS in Iraq, and there is little feedback from regional powers to suggest that they are working closely with Ankara on this and other regional issues. As matters stand Ankara, has more points of divergence than convergence with these powers today.

Erdoğan remains popular at home, of course, and his populism will most likely get him elected president. But his influence in the Middle East and North Africa is diminishing rapidly because of a lack of focus on what is really taking place in those regions, which requires less idealism and more realism today to understand.